Key Takeaways

  • Entanglement in fixed fishing lines is a major threat to the Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whale.
  • Ropeless gear can substantially reduce the risk of entanglement for whales.
  • Retailers have an important role to play in encouraging the uptake of this type of gear.

The adoption of new fishing technologies that substantially reduce the risk of whale entanglement is a key step toward helping protect the Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whale in North American lobster and crab fisheries.

Ropeless, or breakaway, gear types use traps but avoid static vertical lines in the water that can entangle whales. They offer an alternative to the extensive, unpredictable, and disruptive time-area closures currently used by Canadian and US fishery managers to protect right whales.

A major threat to whales

Entanglement in fixed fishing gear, such as lobster and crab pots/traps and vessel strikes are the leading causes of human-related mortalities and serious injuries for North Atlantic right whales. These whales are one of the world’s most endangered species, with a population of only about 350 individuals and current mortality rates that are too high to allow the species to recover.

Citing concerns about whale entanglement, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspended its certification of the Canada Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery in 2018 and the US Gulf of Maine lobster fishery in 2020. These are some of the most valuable wild-caught fisheries in North America.

The important role of seafood retailers

Seafood retailers can play an important role in encouraging the uptake of ropeless gear among fishers by indicating interest in ropeless-caught lobster and crab and preferentially purchasing ropeless-caught product when both ropeless- and traditionally caught products are available. This was a key takeaway in an SFP Expert Brief, written by Hannah Myers of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The first commercial fishing with ropeless systems in North America took place in 2020, when ten snow crab fishers in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence used fully ropeless trawls in an area that was otherwise closed to protect right whales. More trials are taking place in 2021, and with support from major seafood buyers, ropeless gear can be expected to advance through continued field trials and pilots in the next several years.

Ropeless gear

Source: NOAA